Earlier this year, while conferring a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom on the Polish hero Jan Karski, Barack Obama inadvertently touched off the greatest crisis in US-Polish relations in recent memory. The man he honored had served as a courier for the Polish resistance against Hitler, and in 1942 Karski traveled across occupied Europe to tell Western leaders about the Nazi war crimes being committed in Poland, including the Holocaust. Karski had been sent on this secret mission, Obama explained, after fellow underground fighters had told him that “Jews were being murdered on a massive scale and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself.” It was late evening in Warsaw when Obama spoke, but within minutes Polish officials were demanding an apology for his use of the phrase “Polish death camp,” which they thought scandalous.
Even those well-versed in European history must wonder why. After all, the media routinely speak of “French camps” from which Jews were sent to their deaths, and the phrase doesn’t draw similar ire from the French government. On the contrary, in July the French president himself, François Hollande, began a widely covered speech on the seventieth anniversary of the roundup of Jews at Vélodrome d’Hiver by stating, “We’ve gathered this morning to remember the horror of a crime, express the sorrow of those who experienced the tragedy…and therefore France’s responsibility.” Why are Poles so sensitive on the matter of Polish camps? Readers of Halik Kochanski’s new book, The Eagle Unbowed, will ask the opposite question: How could a famously well-educated person such as Barack Obama be so insensitive regarding the simple facts about Poland, the first country to stand up to Hitler?
Here’s one undisputed, essential fact: after the Nazis and their Soviet allies overran Poland in September 1939, they did not permit the Poles to form a new national government. The Soviets made the eastern Polish territories into western Soviet republics; the Germans annexed the western Polish territories into the Reich and made central Poland a “General Government” that they ruled directly. This arrangement was radically different from those in Nazi-occupied France, Denmark or Slovakia, which were ruled by collaborationist regimes. The French camps, then, really were French—that is, operated by French collaborators (a fact stressed by Hollande in his July speech). In Poland the death camps were German, like most other institutions. The Germans allowed the Poles no administration above the village level, reduced the police force to 15,000 men and made the population into a pool of slave labor. They denied Poles schooling above grade six and closed down newspapers and journals while making vodka and pornography readily available. Meat rations disappeared almost entirely, and the population was kept on a starvation diet.
To break Polish resistance, the Germans staged frequent “round-ups,” cordoning off sections of a city’s streets and detaining everyone caught in the dragnet, or sealing off apartment houses, trams or churches and arresting everyone inside. The prisoners were sent to concentration camps or to the Reich as slave labor—or, if circumstances required, kept as hostages, to be shot if Germans were killed by the Polish underground (the ratio was 100 Poles for every German). As one of Kochanski’s sources recalled, in this climate of terror “there was never a moment when we did not feel threatened.”